I recently received an email asking about the track record of innovation in sustainability in Hong Kong. “Sorry, can’t be too helpful here I think,” I replied. “Our track record of innovation in sustainability is probably terrible.”
But the email did get me thinking, and I replied with a short history of Hong Kong’s sustainability initiatives, drawn from my knowledge. Here is a slightly expanded version.
Looking back in time, perhaps the earliest such initiatives focused on farming, especially rice farming. People levelled land to create fields, and nurtured fung shui woods beside villages. These woods were typically just uphill from buildings – perhaps as they could protect against landslides from slopes cleared of most vegetation. As fung shui and similar woods are found elsewhere, they weren’t a local innovation.
After the colony of Hong Kong was established and began growing, there was a pressing need for stable water supplies. This led to surely the greatest sustainability related initiative in Hong Kong: large-scale reafforestation. The aim was to help supply reservoirs: forests are rather like sponges that can soak up some rainfall to release later, instead of having either torrents or nothing. They also stabilise soil, reducing silting of reservoirs.
Hong Kong has devoted huge investments and efforts to reafforestation, and should be seen as a key example of how to succeed with this in the tropics. The forests – and reservoirs – have served as unsung “heroes”, proving critical to Hong Kong’s development.
A closely related development was the establishment of Hong Kong’s country parks in the late 1970s. This proved a tremendous initiative, and today around 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area is designated as country park – which is said to be more than any other territory in the world. The country parks deliver a multitude of benefits in addition to helping with water supplies, such as helping protect biodiversity, and affording recreational space for Hongkongers.
But after establishing country parks, what really qualifies as innovation in sustainability in Hong Kong? There have been initiatives to reduce pollution, such as eliminating pig farming to clean up some rivers, and air pollution controls that led to factories cleaning up or closing and relocating to Guangdong, and closure of waste incinerators.
Yet mostly, I think Hong Kong does not innovate when it comes to sustainability, but lags behind the rest of the world. For instance, Europe introduces standards for bus emissions, and we may later adopt them. Indeed, what passes for policy when it comes to air pollution involves playing catch up with international standards – and catching up so slowly that our air is filthy for “Asia’s World City”.
Then, there are alarming figures on waste, and Hong Kong is – per capita –one of the world’s most throwaway societies. This despite many discussions on how to tackle the issue after the waste incinerators were shut down. The main answer that emerged under Donald Tsang’s administration was: build another incinerator, and make it a huge one on an artificial island by Shek Kwu Chau, at a key site for the globally endangered finless porpoise.
But then, Donald Tsang will hardly be remembered for sustainability. As I’ve written before here, Mr Tsang seemed very fond of construction projects. The new Legco complex in the Tamar site was supposed to be a green building, yet promptly devoured around four times as much electricity per square metre than the former Legislative Council Building.
Hopefully the new Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay will prove far more efficient. I expect it will; after all, the design team included the new Environment Minister K.S. Wong. Yet it is just three storeys high, including the basement – so unlikely to lead to sustainable soaring skyscrapers.
Right now, the skyscrapers are like symbols of unsustainability, and it’s too too easy to list ways Hong Kong is far from unsustainability, whether poor official support for the Eco Park in Tuen Mun, the casual use of plastic bags for newspapers and bread buns, along with plans like huge reclamations, new towns occupying farmland, and the artificial beach at Lung Mei. Looming over all these is our reliance on imports from around the world.
Yet while it’s the sad reality that Hong Kong is highly unsustainable – and far from alone in this, there is cause for some hope. Environmental awareness has surged in recent years. More people are ready to oppose damaging projects, and keen to help shift Hong Kong towards a more sustainable course. Until Donald Tsang’s departure from office, I believed the administration – and most businesses – were disconnected with such aspirations. Now, however, there are indications of changes for the better, notably with changing personnel in the Environment Bureau.
More changes are needed; a shake up in the Environmental Protection Bureau seems essential if it is to refocus on actual protection. But maybe we can and will do better, and Hong Kong can introduce sustainability initiatives to rival the successes of the earlier afforestation schemes.
Chinese version [see below] published in Ming Pao Weekly on 5 January 2013.